The headlines of newspapers scream that we have reached a ‘shameful milestone’.  We have made people march to the gallows-more than we want to count and believe that we have.  Pakistan has executed more than 250 people since the lifting of the moratorium in December 2014. At the time it was a measure to combat terrorism, in wake of ghastly massacre of almost 150 people in a Peshawar school. However, that seems to be long forgotten. Now the death penalty is focusing on clearing out jails- targeting the mentally ill and physical disabled as well. 

The story of Abdul Basit echoes the abysmal state of Pakistan’s criminal justice system and reaffirms that whilst the wealthy and influential escape through the loopholes; the poor, disabled, mentally ill, and the most vulnerable segments of Pakistan’s society, is rushed to the gallows – celebrated as an indicator of its success in eradicating terrorism. The state is apathetic to the violations of their human dignity, and it has become evident in Abdul Basit’s case, where despite his permanent disability and humiliating conditions of imprisonment, he remains on death row.

Abdul Basit was convicted for the murder of another man during a heated altercation in 2009. However, he has always claimed his innocence, asserting that he was not the first one to offer violence. It was on the basis of evidence given by just two relatives of the deceased that he was convicted of murder. Basit now 44, wakes up every morning to a day that routinely brings him humiliation and helplessness. His legs are attached to him like two useless weights that he cannot move -a constant reminder and remnant of the life he used to have and the man he once used to be.

Most people know him simply as the ‘paraplegic death row prisoner’, but Basit is a man who once led a dignified life. He was an administrator at a medical college in Faisalabad, who was pleasant and well liked. Like the many prisoners I’ve met have recounted, the grave mistakes they have made are usually triggered by small but fateful errors in judgment. For Basit, it was such an error that eventually resulted in him being convicted of murder.

In 2010, Abdul Basit was transferred to Central Jail, Faisalabad. Later that year, the prisoners in Faisalabad jail rioted against the torturous practices of the jail administration especially, the Superintendents. Several prisoners died in the riots, and many more injured. The Superintendent was suspended and the new Superintendent, confined most of the prisoners to the “punishment wing” in Central Jail. For, months, Abdul Basit was held in the filthy and unhygienic conditions of the punishment ward where disease is rampant. While there, he began complaining of severe headache and an extremely high temperature. His family narrated that his headache became so severe that he would scream and bang his head against the wall for any form of relief. His anguish was only met with apathy by jail authorities despite repeated pleas from his family. It was discovered later that based on his symptoms Abdul Basit had contracted Tuberculosis (TB) meningitis in prison. Despite the knowledge that TB, if left untreated, could result in permanent damage, the jail authorities denied him any access to the requisite healthcare and simply confined him to a solitary cell to prevent an outbreak. It was only after Abdul Basit succumbed to a month of indelible pain and lost consciousness that he was transferred to a hospital. 

It was discovered that his condition was so critical, that he fell into a coma for 4 weeks. Eventually his family was informed that as a result of neglect and a lack of timely treatment he had contracted Tuberculosis (TB) meningitis. Over the course of thirteen months his condition plummeted – he became paralyzed from the waist down and would suffer from long-term consequences of spinal cord permanently. Abdul Basit would never be able to walk again, and lost all control of his basic bodily functions permanently.

In spite of his pitiful condition, Abdul Basit’s execution was scheduled soon after his mercy appeal to the President was rejected. His legal counsel filed a writ petition pleading, amongst other things, that there is no procedure laid out in the Pakistan Prison Rules 1978 to execute a physically disabled prisoner. The rules are vividly elaborate as to the procedure to be adopted before and during the execution. Rule 356 of jail manual, states that the prisoner must “mount the scaffold”, after which the executioner will strap his legs tightly together. All the while, two warders will stand on either side of the condemned prisoner holding him by his arms. Once the noose has been placed around his neck, “the warders holding the condemned man’s arms then withdraw and…the executioner shall carry out the sentence”. It is evident, as Basit’s counsel has argued that the framers of the rules did not envisage that a paraplegic would be put up for execution. Whether that was an implied exclusion or a mere oversight is not the issue at hand, nor is it a question of the morality of hanging a disabled man.

Executions of the mentally ill violate the right to human dignity under the Constitution, and are an affront to Pakistan’s legal obligations under international law. Additionally, Section 84 of the Pakistan Penal Code does not allow the state to punish any person suffering from a “disorder of his mental capabilities” The fact that officials are prepared to hang Basit, despite knowing this, shows they are even prepared to bend Pakistan’s law to breaking point.

After the Lahore High Court dismissed the Petition in September, another warrant for Basit’s execution was issued. His counsel filed an appeal against the High Court order before the Honorable Supreme Court of Pakistan.  While disposing the petition, Justice Ejaz Afzal Khan referred to the execution stating that “we do not feel chary…that Judicial Magistrate of Jail…shall comply with the relevant rules”. Though the Supreme Court did not stay the execution, it made one thing explicitly clear: the jail authorities shall comply with the rules while carrying out the execution of the prisoner. This put a burden on the Judicial Magistrate to ensure that the procedure dictated in the Prison Rules is carried out the way it has been written. Recognizing a technical lacuna, the Judicial Magistrate postponed the execution, requesting further instructions from the Provincial Government on how to proceed. What the Judicial Magistrate was able to understand was that when it comes to the implementation of such a procedure, divergence from the rules in lieu of a Supreme Court order would be to act in contempt of court.  Such a step by the authorities, one that protects the human dignity of Basit and the rights of other prisoners, has been greatly appreciated by both local and international human rights organizations. 

It is also important to understand why Basit’s counsel has argued so ardently based on the risks of hanging a paraplegic man. Those that have studied it understand that there is a delicate science behind hanging. The ‘long drop method’ is the only one used for hanging in Pakistan. The objective of this method is to cause the ‘Hangman’s Fracture’, i.e. to cause a fracture in the vertebrae of the spinal cord, resulting in hyperextension of the head and distraction of the neck. This process crushes the spinal cord and rapidly induces unconsciousness followed by death. However, in a recent study of such fractures suffered by thirty-four victims, it was found that that only a small proportion resulted in the ideal ‘Hangman’s Fracture’. If there is an inconsistency in the calculated weight or height, the ‘drop’ will be inaccurate. If the force of downward drop is too little, he will die a slow death by strangulation. If the force is too great, his neck will be severed from his body. Of course, this study was based on individuals with full function of their limbs. If the hanging of even such subjects is risky and has a low success rate, how reliable will it be for a man with no power in his limbs?

Basit is not the only one. Mentally ill prisoners are stuffed in Pakistan death row cells alongside other inmates. These death row cells, measuring 8 by 12 feet, designed to house not more than two prisoners at a time. They currently hold on average 6 or more prisoners for over 23 hours a day. Whilst the Medical Health Ordinance was enacted in 2001 to provide protection and treatment to mentally ill prisoners the law receives little or no implementation nation-wide.

Pakistan has the world’s largest number of death row inmates, with more than and it is on course to have one of the highest rates of executions in the world. The current government should revisit the moratorium over the death penalty to put a stop to a blatant violation of human rights.

Abdul Basit’s case is surely unique due to his permanent disability. However, in many ways, it is the face of the state’s executions since the lifting of the moratorium on the death penalty - cruel, revengeful and futile in its self-proclaimed quest to eradicate terrorism.